Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Have pity for our Central Arkansas Mexican restaurants: there are simply so many around that it's hard to differentiate one from another — sort of like a game of "Where's Waldo" with a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa. It's this very reason that caused me to bypass Patron Mexican Grill in Benton for nearly every one of the four years I've spent in Saline County, heading to the restaurant during my last week before moving only because all my cookware was packed away in boxes. Patron doesn't do much to stand out in terms of its exterior or decor, but don't let the almost-anonymous outside fool you: there is some serious spicy cooking going on inside. Couple this with service that is friendly and efficient and one of "dry" Saline County's best cocktail lists, and suddenly Patron is worth a lot more notice than I ever gave the place.
Starting the meal is pretty standard: head to a table, order a drink, and enjoy your complimentary chips and salsa. The salsa is thin, but very fresh tasting, with obvious diced peppers and cilantro that serve to give it a nice flavor. I won't go quite as far as saying that I've paid for salsa that wasn't as good as this, but it was definitely one of the stronger contenders for "best free salsa" in the area. The menu ranges from standards like tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, but includes several different styles of fajitas and an even stranger squash enchilada that is sure to catch the eye of any visiting vegetarian tired of only having rice and beans as an option.
Throwing authenticity to the wind, we started with the Chicken Chimichanga, and Patron's version of the Tex-Mex classic came out fried to a golden crisp and covered with a velvety cheese sauce. The chimichanga was stuffed with marinated chicken, and the rich, spicy flavor of that tender chicken was the first thing that raised our respect for Patron. Subtle spices mingled with peppers and onions gave the chicken a wonderful flavor, and the crisp-fried flour shell was substantial enough to stand up to both the moist protein inside and the ample cheese sauce outside. The result was bite after bite of excellent shredded chicken made even better by the fresh guacamole and pico de gallo served to the side.
The greatest discovery of the meal, though, was the Pork Verde, a massive portion of grilled pork chunks swimming in a tangy tomatillo salsa that was bursting with hot, fresh flavor. For the perfect pork in green sauce, the pork must first be grilled to create a good, seared flavor and color, then braised in salsa until the meat is tender. Patron succeeds with both aspects of their version, with the smoky pork providing a deep foundation for the light, slightly sour sauce. Too many times I've had this dish where the pork is chewy and full of gristle and the sauce just a bland after-thought; Patron's pork was lean and tender with a sauce that was spicy and good.
If there's anything I should have learned after a few years in this business of discussing food, it's that just like a book shouldn't be judged by its cover, neither should a restaurant be judged by its exterior. Patron seems a little anonymous at first glance, tucked away off a service road near Home Depot, and while the menu isn't anything that will shock or surprise the average diner, it's the execution of these staples of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine that make the place worth a visit. It's obvious that the cooks at Patron know their way around melding ingredients such as tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and cilantro into sauces and marinades that complement and accentuate their various offered meats in a way that seems to escape all too many Mexican joints. In addition, the place knows its way around the grill as well, and the smoky flavor of each meat is paired perfectly with the excellent sauces. It was a surprising meal for me, mostly because I'd driven right past the place for years and not given it a second thought: that was a mistake on my part. Patron isn't high-end fare, and it lacks the gritty authenticity of a taco wagon, but good food is good food, and Patron is serving it up daily.
Patron Mexican Grill is located at 17324 Interstate 30, in the same shopping center as the Tinseltown Theater, and they are open for lunch and dinner daily.